What I accomplished despite 2020

It’s no secret that 2020 has been a pretty ghastly year in a lot of ways, and Covid-19 in particular has laid low many of the plans I had. I’d planned to start running a new campaign. I’d planned to go to GenCon for the first time. I’d planned to keep building up the RPG Museum wiki for all things roleplaying. The last of these I did for a while, but the year eventually sapped the energy I had to even do that.

But look, it’s worth looking at the positives where you can find them. Merely getting through the year is an accomplishment, and here are some other RPG-related accomplishments that I am also proud of.

I kept playing role-playing games

Somehow, I kept playing role-playing games throughout 2020. That’s huge, frankly, because I know more than one person who wasn’t able to. I am incredibly lucky to have a great many friends who enjoy role-playing, and between us we managed to shift our gaming online without too many problems. I’d never roleplayed remotely before but I’ve found that I like it. It’s not the same as playing face-to-face, and it’s not a replacement, but it’s a good time with my friends nonetheless. We mostly use Discord, which I think is better than the other chat platforms I’ve tried (despite consistently disconnecting me momentarily at least once in every session).

Only one of my regular campaigns as at the start of the first Covid lockdown in March couldn’t make the jump to remote play, but all of the others shifted with little fuss. These included the conclusion of a Predation campaign (my first proper experience of the Cypher Systen), as well as continuations of my years-long campaigns of Unknown Armies (due to wrap up in the next couple of sessions) and Dungeons & Dragons (no end in sight).

I’ve also started playing some games since lockdown, meaning that my only experience of them has been online. These include one-shot games like The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze and campaigns like Band of Blades (of which, admittedly, we’ve only had one session so far). That’s not to mention going back to some games I’ve enjoyed before (including Microscope and Heroes of the Hearth, which I reviewed before) or my guest appearances in other campaigns being run by my friends, including as another PC’s father in a new D&D campaign and as Sir Galahad in a Spirit of the Century game using Fate Core rules. (In the latter, I am proud to have put a very distinctive stamp on the arc in which the pulp-era heroes time-travel to Arthurian times… by turning it into a Power Rangers/Super Sentai story where we fight size-changing fae monsters sent by a witch on the moon. Also Galahad is a werewolf. That campaign is bonkers in the best way.)

Thank you to everyone that has run games for me this year and that have played in games with me!

I even ran some game sessions

Somehow, I GMed some game sessions remotely in 2020. Not very many, and not in the last few months, but some is better than none and I’m counting it. I started with Psi*Run (a favourite old pick-up game that helped me get used to running game online), then Honey Heist (a new-to-me but simple game, charming if a little too thin for regular use), before then running multiple sessions of Agon 2nd edition (which I like a lot but wouldn’t know how to run without the pre-set islands, which are of variable quality unfortunately). (Actually, I’m tempted to try Agon again at some point, but that might just be because I’m playing a lot of the video game Hades right now.)

But the game I ran that I am most pleased with was… Fate of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Yes! At long last I’ve been able to run my TMNT hack of the Fate RPG using the system from The Three Rocketeers. I wrote about this hack in a series of blog posts way back in 2016, and I have finally finally played it.

And it was amazing!

The last piece of the puzzle to getting to the game was finding players who were as enthusiastic about TMNT as I was, and when everything was thrown into the air during the move to remote gaming I found exactly the group I wanted from among my own friendship circles. Thank you so much to Andre (Donatello), Ashara (Michelangelo), Louis (Leonardo) and Tom (Raphael) for letting me have this and for making it such a fantastic experience! (I’m still up for a second episode if you guys are.)

First of all, I took the proto-PCs that I created in this blog post and let the players finalise the details and customise the characters. This worked really well, letting the PCs ride that line of being both clearly identifiable versions of the iconic characters and also suited to the personalities and preferences of the players. The list of example free aspects was useful, and excitingly three of the characters used aspects that I’d written with a different character in mind, and it still worked great. The only thing I would change about this chargen process is I would re-introduce the mandatory Family Aspect from The Three Rocketeers, but have it reflect how the character relates to his brothers (instead of to a character’s status and standing in the wider world, per Rocketeers). And maybe it would be useful to have one aspect keying off the hook for the one-shot (Splinter in this case, others as appropriate), but that would require further playtesting.

Then I was able to run the one-shot adventure I wrote pretty much as-is. I was nervous about opening with the turtles in their regular lives in the sewer lair (after the actual play that used the adventure switched it for a cold open), but the players relished the chance to show off their characters’ personalities in their home environment and immediately created their own fun. It did help that I started at dinner time and the first question I asked was: so what are you eating on your pizzas?

I did tweak the adventure slightly. I removed the fight against Bebop & Rocksteady (something the actual play had done before me and I liked), which gave the turtles more time to infiltrate the Foot Headquarters. This also let me introduce Karai as a character the turtles could interact with in the Headquarters. I played her as someone who is loyal to Shredder (her father), but also not entirely on board with his single-minded revenge plan, and therefore reasonably willing to help the turtles rescue Splinter as long as they get out quickly and don’t hurt her father. In the source material, she has a particular connection to Leonardo, which worked out great for us because the only player who recognised her was the one playing Leonardo. Basically, in the middle of enemy territory Leonardo suddenly found himself having to introduce his brothers to someone that he had kinda been hanging out with in secret who was, oh yeah, the daughter of their nemesis. In the way of teenagers, they responded by ribbing him for having a girlfriend, and the whole scene was just great.

The only other change I made was to switch the Foot Headquarters from an underground base to a city tower. This allowed an easy shorthand of moving upwards being progress towards their goal, but it was most useful in facilitating their exit from the roof after the job was done. It was especially handy because, with Karai’s help and some good rolls, they bypassed the expected final boss battle to escape by hang glider with their rescued sensei.

All in all, it was possibly my favourite single session of an RPG that I’ve ever run.

Quick side note: Tools for gaming online

Most games that I’ve played online this year have used Discord for its video, voice and text chat functions. I think Discord is better than other platforms I’ve used, including Facebook Messenger Voice Call, Google Meet, and Zoom. For one thing, Discord has great bots/apps that can improve your game (I recommend Sidekick for dice or cards, and Rythm for background music). Some games even have their own bots to automate gameplay, including Bash, Oracle of Fate for The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze.

For some games, Discord and your own character sheets are enough to play, but that’s not always the case. Google Sheets is a good general purpose tool for note taking and even simple character sheets. I’ve used Trello, mostly known as a productivity and organisational tool, to good effect for Microscope (lists as periods, cards as events) and Fate games (different lists keep track of fate points, game aspects, situation aspects, and conditions).

And, of course, sometimes you want a full-on virtual tabletop and built-in character sheets. The virtual tabletop I’ve used most is Roll20, which is perhaps fairly basic but has the benefit of being free for most uses and customisable for many different games. And when it has the support it needs, it can shine.

Evil Hat Productions have done amazing work to make their games playable directly in Roll20 with its native features: Agon, Band of Blades, and the new character sheets for Fate Core are all excellent. Evil Hat are also great at accepting feedback. When the Fate sheets were added earlier this year, I reviewed them and sent feedback, and Fred Hicks very quickly responded and then addressed my points of concern. Evil Hat even added new features to the sheets that I requested, including an orange (ahem, sorry, “gold”) character sheet colour scheme to go along with the blue, red and purple colour schemes they already had. If I ever play a second session of Fate of the TMNT, I’m definitely colour-coding each PC’s character sheets to their bandanas!

The other good thing about Roll20 is that, even when a game’s publisher doesn’t provide a lot of support, other companies can. For Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards of the Coast don’t seem to care overmuch, so D&D Beyond (and the Beyond20 extension) are absolute must-haves for playing D&D online.

Anyway, that’s it for my quick digression. Back to my own accomplishments this year.

I kept updating my mixed-race rules for Dungeons & Dragons

My last blog post before this one was about an update to my online tool for creating mixed-race or hybrid characters in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. In that blog post, I mentioned briefly that subsequent updates would be made to the Google sheets version of the tool, but that I wouldn’t make further blog posts about them. And, indeed, I have continued to tweak it with minor and major updates since.

In March, the tool was on v4. As of yesterday, it’s now on v10.

Significant changes in that intervening time include the inclusion of races from Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica, Mythic Odysseys of Theros, and dragonmark races and sub-races from Eberron: Rising from the Last War. (That last was a request by Modderkin64 on that recent blog post, so if you’ve got feedback you can let me know and I will work on it.) I have also added an option for the long-overdue (and slightly meagre) changes to racial ability score increases from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, and I’ve also overhauled the ‘creator’ tab so that it automates many conditional combinations (e.g. each language now appears only once).

Basically, if you’re interested in this tool, maybe it’s time to have another look if you haven’t for a while?

Anything else?

I would like to say that I have many other things in progress, but really my creative RPG energy this year has gone into the above. The only other thing to mention is that I have done a little bit of work recently on a collaborative session zero and worldbuilding tool for D&D campaigns. People who have read some of my older blog posts will know that this is important to me, and I have repurposed the relationship map from games like Smallville to a D&D context. My first playtest of the tool led to us creating a great and interesting world, but it also highlighted a few things that need to be updated in a second draft, which I haven’t yet been able to do. I hope to clean it up and share it here someday.

Beyond Dwelfs: Even more mixed race options for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition

Portrait of a half-Dwarf, half-Orc (dworc)
Portrait of a half-Dwarf/half-Orc (dworc) named Grehg by Archaes8 (via DeviantArt)

It’s March, and apparently that means I’m doing another update of my free ruleset for creating and playing mixed race or hybrid characters in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. I launched this is March 2018 with Bring on the dwelfs: Mixed race options in Dungeons & Dragons 5e, and significantly updated it in March 2019 (one year ago today, in fact) with Dwelfs and Dragoblins: More mixed race options for D&D 5e. I wasn’t planning to update it today or even this month, but here we are.

For those who don’t know, I have a bugbear (ba dum tsh) with how fantasy races are portrayed in Dungeons & Dragons, and in particular with how the existing, official hybrid races (mainly Half-Elves and Half-Orcs, but also to a lesser extent Aasimar, Tieflings and Genasi) are presented as wholly separate from either of their parent races. I also dislike that they all seem to be half-Human and half-Something Else, for several reasons. In my first blog post on the subject, I talked at some length about my concerns and ways to address them using the rules as written.

But let’s be honest, it would be far more interesting if there were new rules for actual mixed race characters.

My solution has been to take the official Wizards of the Coast playable races (or at least those available on D&D Beyond) and split their associated rules into two parts, a Left Component and a Right Component, which can be mixed and matched to make any combination (including the official races themselves). I provide the general rules for each component, including the names of the features provided but not the rules of those features (you’ll need relevant official sourcebooks for that).

Now you have rules for playing that Dwelf (half-Dwarf/half-Elf) or Dworc (half-Dwarf/half-Orc) you’ve been thinking about. Or a Genasi that is half-Gnome instead of half-Human (a Genome, if you will). Or, for the first time in this update, a half-Tabaxi/half-Locathah (or Catfish).

This update includes new races from the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, Acquisitions Incorporated, One Grung Above, and Locathah Rising. The spreadsheet is also now available on Google Docs instead of needing to be downloaded as an Excel file, which I hope will improve accessibility and will definitely make it easier to update in future. Enjoy!

Creating Hybrid Races in D&D 5e by Stephen Morffew

Also, as ever, instructions and the components are also included in the blog below, but the spreadsheet is likely to remain the most up-to-date version going forwards. Check it out periodically for updates and new races! And let me know if there’s anything you want me to add!

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Uncle Step needs YOU… to check out RPG Museum!

It’s been quite a while since I last updated the blog, but I’ve been no less busy with roleplaying, thank Heavens. I’ve been playing in an absurd number of games pretty much consistently since my last post, which is delightful, and we successfully concluded the campaign of The Veil I was running. (The players were successful, that is, not the characters, which feels fairly suitable for cyberpunk and our campaign specifically.)

Other than that, I’ve been doing something a bit different: editing!

Two kinds of editing, in fact.

First of all, I edited Risky Things to do with Sorcery, a 7th Sea supplement by Michael Duxbury, which is now available for purchase on DriveThruRPG. I got involved initially as a playtester for his new rules for Fate Witch duels (give it a try: it’s fun but brutal!), but ended up doing a fairly thorough sense edit and copy edit of the final product. I’m perhaps biased, but I think it’s an incredibly useful supplement for 7th Sea GMs, and I wish I’d had it when I was running a campaign. I’m also really proud because it’s the first time I’ve got my name in a published-for-real-money RPG product and been credited for anything other than playtesting or backing by Kickstarter.

But the other kind of editing I’ve been doing is wiki editing! Early last year, I was talking to folks on Twitter about how great it would be to have some central repository of RPG design, theory, and other accumulated learning. I suggested a wiki, but I never acted on it until one day I found that such a wiki already exists! It’s called the RPG Museum and it desperately needs some love. I’ve been doing what I can, and I’m already seeing some improvements, but it would be fantastic if anyone else with an interest in RPG theory, design, history, culture, GMing, roleplaying, etc. could join in and help out. There’s plenty to do.

Here are some of the things I’ve already worked on:

A pretty big variety of things, I hope you agree! Maybe you’ll find these examples useful, but even these pages are almost certainly incomplete or need some tweaking, and there are plenty of other things that we don’t have any pages for at all yet. For example, we’ve barely even started on pages about individual games, publications, and game designers (and there’s quite a few of those that we might be able to lift from a certain other big encyclopedic wiki, just saying). How funny would it be if someone came and wrote a page about themselves or the games they’ve designed?

I’m very excited about the possibilities of this wiki, and I hope some of you come along and share that excitement with me!

Bloody Rose shows how to Rock & Roll some Dungeons & Dragons

Bloody Rose coverI recently read Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames, a brilliant fantasy book about a band of misfits who travel around the land killing monsters. It’s exciting and it’s funny (I laughed for whole minutes at one point that I can’t tell you about without spoiling it), and the characters are badass and flawed and relatable. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in modern high fantasy literature. For reasons I’ll explain in this blog post, I’m also convinced that it should be added to the next version of D&D’s recommended reading (the 5th edition Appendix E version of which I have previously reviewed on this blog).

Now, I’m pretty sure that Bloody Rose is neither an official Dungeons & Dragons tie-in novel nor set in a D&D campaign world, but it clearly draws on D&D for inspiration. It’s got the standard ingredients: the aforementioned groups of monster slayers; non-human sentient races; magic weapons; a vaguely medieval setting with a map; a stark divide between human civilisation and monstrous wildlands; cataclysmic threats; heroics; bards to sing the tales. It’s even got some monsters straight out of the Monster Manual, including D&D-originals like owlbears, mariliths, and hyena-faced gnolls.

But the thing I’m most fascinated by in Bloody Rose is the spin that it puts on the heroic fantasy genre: what if adventuring parties were like rock & roll bands? It must have been done before, right? Does anyone know where and how? Regardless, I’ve never seen it before, so this is the story that made me wonder how to incorporate that idea back into D&D.

If you want to play a D&D campaign in which the adventuring parties were rock & roll bands, how would that work?

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Twitter and my toboggan ride down Mt Stupid

Graph of the Dunner-Kruger effect, from Wisdom of the Hands

I haven’t written anything on this blog recently. Mostly I blame Twitter, but perhaps not for the reason you’d think. Twitter is a much bigger pond that the circles I used to frequent on Google Plus. It has an active but disparate RPG scene. Being exposed to it has been eye-opening. So many clever people talking about RPGs and RPG theory in such depth and with such nuance. It has also been slightly demoralising.

(Sorry, this blog post could get a bit rambly.)

To use a metaphor about the Dunning–Kruger effect (a metaphor I also learned on Twitter), since running this blog I have been high up the slopes of Mount Stupid. Now I feel like I have just tobogganned down it and crashed into the Valley of Despair.

In short, I have finally learned enough about roleplaying games to know that I know nothing.

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Kobolds are a bit like Geese: A eulogy for Google+

In the last hour as I write this, Google+ finally shut down. It sucks, because Google+ was the best place I found online for roleplaying community discussions, and it suited me and my needs perfectly. Since the announcement that it was going, I’ve branched out to a few other social media sites. I’m now on Twitter (@Supermorff, follow me if you like) and reddit (u/stepintorpgs) and Discord (it confuses me so much) and a bunch of different forums. They’re fine but none are filling the hole just yet. Early days. (I understand some people have gone to places like MeWe, but I kinda don’t want to go somewhere that recruited social media-displaced roleplaying nerds with the same tactics they used to recruit social media-displaced white supremacists.)

Anyway, as a farewell, here’s a little thing that I posted on Google+ last year that I like enough to save. Enjoy.

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Dwelfs and Dragoblins: More mixed race options for D&D 5e

Male dwelf concept art by dmantz, via reddit

One year ago, I posted a way of creating player characters in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition that have the traits of two different playable races. That blog post was Bring on the dwelfs: Mixed race options in Dungeons & Dragons 5e, and it has become my most-viewed post on this site.

However, after posting I realised I wasn’t entirely happy with it, and felt it could be expanded and improved. So, finally, here is the expanded and improved guide for creating mixed race or hybrid characters in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition:

Creating Hybrid Races in D&D 5e by Stephen Morffew

(Since 22 March 2020, this link is to the updated version on Google Drive. Archives of the previous (Excel) versions linked from this page can be found here: v2 (22 March 2019) and v3 (10 May 2019). Alternatively, if you don’t want to download the file, you can browse the components at the end of this blog post.)

Whereas the previous guide included only 10 different official races (and some of their subraces), this new guide includes 71 different official races and sub-races, which can now be freely mixed and matched to create new racial options. You can still make your half-Elf/half-Dwarf Dwelf, but maybe you want to make a half-Dragonborn/half-Goblin, or a half-Shifter/half-Tabaxi, or one of over a thousand other possibilities. Now you can! Enjoy!

Update 2020-03-22: A second follow-up blog post has now been posted at Beyond Dwelfs: Even more mixed race options for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. While the links in this blog have been updated to the latest version, you’ll need to see the updated blog post for an update to the components as presented at the end of this post.

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Get Inspired: Reading from D&D Appendix E

Appendix E from D&D 5e PHBIn the back of the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition Player’s Handbook, there is a list of inspirational reading called Appendix E. It’s a list of books (much as you might find in other RPGs) that influenced the creation of D&D or might help inspire players or DMs, and even some that were themselves inspired by D&D. It’s an expansion of an older list, Appendix N, that was compiled by Gary Gygax for the original Dungeon Master’s Guide in 1979. That list is specifically things that influenced Gary, and runs the gamut from fantasy through science fiction to horror; the additions for Appendix E tend to be more strictly fantasy, in line with what D&D has now become. (Other people have already talked about the evolution from Appendix N into Appendix E, so if you like you can look here, here or here, but in general I’d say that I’d have preferred if they’d been more willing to cut things out that no longer seemed appropriate.)

For a while, I’ve been reading books from the list when I’ve had the time, and now, in the last couple of months, I made an earnest attempt to read all the books that I hadn’t yet got around to. And since I have this roleplaying blog already, I might as well put down a little review for each thing I read.

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Quick Cortex Prime hack: Spies and monster hunters in Cold City

Cold City coverMy gaming group just wrapped up a Cold City campaign. It was fun, and we liked the setting, but afterwards the other players and I were unanimous in our dislike of the game’s system. There were some good bits, but too many bad bits getting in the way. For example, stats increase when you succeed and decrease when you fail, and if they decrease too far (which can happen on the turn of a single roll, especially if you were a min-maxer like me) that leads to a downward spiral and then it’s almost impossible for your character to become competent again.

Another player suggested that you could play a campaign with the same setting in another game like The Dystopian Universe Roleplaying Game (a Fate game). He was probably right, but I’ve never played that game, so I’m going to hack Cold City for Cortex Prime instead. Enjoy!

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Dream Questing as open table play: it’s been done, right?

I’m going to pitch a campaign idea, and I want people to tell me 1) whether they’ve ever done anything like this before, and 2) how it went. Ok? Here goes:

Heroes adventure through a fantasy world (the usual: fighting evil, slaying monsters, rescuing imprisoned royalty, saving the common folk, overthrowing tyrants, wielding powerful weapons and magic, exploring the wondrous lands around them, making a name for themselves, etc.). But they aren’t firmly tethered to this fantasy world, because in fact they are from the mundane world, without monsters or magic or heroes or wonder. In their home world they are normal people, unimportant, but sometimes when they sleep they appear in the fantasy world and become heroes. And when they wake, they vanish from that fantasy world until their next visit.

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